Don't try to tell Jerry Nelson he's not prepared for his cross-country bicycle ride. True, he hasn't ridden his bike much, he doesn't have a support team, and he's still looking to drum up a few sponsors. But it's been 12 months since his open-heart surgery, and nothing gets the Asheville resident more fired up than helping the homeless. Just don't ask him to give up his cigarettes during the 2,000-mile-plus journey from here to California.
"Emotionally, I'm ready for this one," says Nelson. "Physically, not so much."
The 54-year-old veteran, a professional photographer, aims to raise $10,000 for the Asheville Homeless Network. The grass-roots group bills itself as the nation's only organization made up of homeless people focused on helping homeless people. Money from the trip, which is slated to begin March 19, will go to the group's Adopt-A-Homeless program, which matches an individual or organization with a homeless person to help them make the transition from the street to a home.
The Vietnam veteran, who served as a cryptologic technician in the Navy from 1972 to '84, says he also hopes to raise money for national groups that work with homeless vets. Nelson credits the Department of Veterans Affairs with helping him avoid becoming homeless himself, but he worries about others who may not seek out that aid.
"This story's not about this big ol' boy," the photographer explains. "It's about the veterans coming back that don't have a place to live. I've got a soft spot for them."
Nelson bristles at what he describes as discrimination against the homeless. "It seems like the homeless is the last group that's safe to discriminate against." The bike trip, he says, will help boost public awareness and increase sensitivity to their plight.
This isn't the first time Nelson has embarked on a charitable road trip. He completed a similar odyssey in 2008 to raise money for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. He says he averaged 65 miles a day, covering a whopping 215 on his best day and 8 on his worst.
Nelson figures this trip will take him about six weeks. The Asheville ReCyclery helped him build a bike for his upcoming trek. Another group that works with homeless vets bought him a lightweight tent and sleeping bag, though at this point he still needs saddle bags, gloves, a pump and a few other supplies.
Naturally, he plans to take plenty of photos, which he'll post to his Web site, journeyamerica.org. He'll also post updates on his blog (see journeyamerica.wordpress.com).
"Anyone can become homeless at any point in time," he notes, "so I want to pump up some dollars and pump up the volume" on solutions.
On Monday, March 15, Firestorm Cafe in downtown Asheville will host an open house and sendoff for Nelson from 5 to 6 p.m.The event will feature a slideshow of photos from his last cross-country trip and a bicycle raffle.